Joel Coen has often said that the job of the director boils down to one thing – tone management. That shouldn’t be a surprising statement from the filmmaker responsible in part for so many modern classics, but it did come as quite a surprising to this writer that watching Jim Cummings’ The Wolf of Snow Hollow inspired an electric jolt similar to the first time one experiences Joel and his brother Ethan Coen’s very different snow-swept caper. Like that film, this one is a marvel of tone management, as the writer/director/star constantly flips the switch from terrifying to hilarious – from idiosyncratic to devastating – with the finesse of a modern master.

There are attacks taking place in the isolated mountain town of Snow Hollow, and Officer John Marshall (Cummings) is getting sick and tired of everything about them – the state of the bodies when they are found (a missing head here, some absent genitalia there), the questions from the press and fellow officers and, most of all, the inability to pin down a suspect in any way. John is an endlessly fascinating character as written and, especially, performed by Cummings. In light of the recent events of our doom-laden reality, the filmmaker smartly frames the man as something of a loose cannon, one who fires his shotgun wildly at a suspect with no consideration for anything else and who suffers from a debilitating addiction.

Cummings’ manic energy as an actor is at distinct odds from everything else on screen, yet there is a palpable sadness here alongside the boiling rage. John is an alcoholic. He takes bourbon with his coffee and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, all while this mysterious set of events, which creeps into the national news media with the usual speed of such things, and his dysfunctional family life push him gradually off the wagon. His daughter Jenna (Chloe East) is developing romantic interests and pursuing college out of state, and his father, Sheriff Hadley (the late Robert Forster, in his final screen appearance), has a bad heart, a fact that John actively covers up from everyone else.

Then the attacks begin. We see them happen in fairly gruesome detail, such as in the prologue with a young couple (Jimmy Tatro and Annie Hamilton) on the verge of happiness until tragedy strikes. Later, the unseen culprit targets a single woman, as well as a young mother and, most disturbingly, her small daughter. The remains are in bloody tatters, stark against the snow of this chill winter, and a rumor circulates through town that it might very well be a werewolf. John and fellow officer Julia Robson (a phenomenal Riki Lindhome, taking the role of no-nonsense law enforcement and turning it inward) find that suggestion to be blatant silliness. All that is known for now is that he, she or it is targeting women.

The fact that women – mostly blonde ones that could be misconstrued as “virginal,” by the way – are the targets of attack turns out to be quite relevant, both to the mystery that develops for the Snow Hollow PD and for the things being explored by Cummings in this story. When we finally meet the culprit of the attacks, in a chilling scene that works as well as it does because of the rising tension, Cummings undercuts the entire thing with a great bad joke. That unintentionally sums up the experience of watching the movie, which never entirely takes itself seriously but always manages to circle back around to the dreadful reality of the danger, the peril, and the devastation.

Somehow, the film manages this mixture without giving the audience a case of tonal whiplash. It always seems on the verge of that, such as in a series of montages that mix the nightly attacks with John’s harried reactions to the bodies and angry explosions at those around him. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is crucially able to rein in its quirkier impulses at key moments (the big final showdown, for instance, is almost pathetic in its intentional anticlimax), yet it also makes room for the varying personalities on display (Forster, for whom this is a terrific send-off, showcases his often-underappreciated talents as the droll sheriff). The movie even nails its bittersweet coda, which is something of a small miracle.

Cummings flips the switch from terrifying to hilarious – from idiosyncratic to devastating – with the finesse of a modern master.
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